Useful Notes / Mahatma Gandhi

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"There are many causes I am prepared to die for, but none I am prepared to kill for."

"Christ gave us the goal, and Gandhi the tactics."

"Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth."

The Father of India, and arguably its most famous son.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869 — January 30, 1948; Mahatma is a Sanskrit title meaning "Great Soul", and was given to him by the famous Bengali writer and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) is synonymous with non-violent resistance and the Indian struggle for independence from the British Empire. Gandhi pioneered the idea of (peaceful) civil disobedience and non-cooperation with authorities without resorting to violence, principles that would later go on to inspire Dr Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

The enduring image of Gandhi is of a little bald elderly Indian man with glasses, wrapped in a peasant's dhoti and leaning on a stick. Considering what he achieved, he may be a Real Life example of Rule One: "Do not act incautiously while confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men!" A strict vegetarian, Gandhi went on long fasts both as a means of self-purification and achieving his political aims.

Gandhi was born in October 1869 in the tiny coastal town of Porbandar in the Bombay Presidency (currently in the Indian State of Gujarat), the youngest child of a middle-class family. His father died when he was still attending middle school, at which point his family decided to send him to England to study law when he graduated from high school. Upon graduating he did just that, and in the course of finding a decent vegetarian restaurant he would meet a group of intellectuals which included writer Henry Salt and Madame Blavatsky. It was in London that Gandhi first read the classic Indian text the Bhagavad Gita, which had a profound and life-long influence upon him.

Having completed his studies at the University College London he moved to South Africa to practise law, where his ill-treatment and campaigning for Coloured/Asian (as opposed to Black, White, or pan-Human) rights was made famous in Ben Kingsley's 1982 film Gandhi. In one oft-cited incident he was refused first-class seating in a train despite having bought a first-class ticket. In another, he was ordered to remove his turban whilst arguing a case in court (the judge considered it a mere hat). It was after these and other such slights that Gandhi decided to conduct a civil rights campaign on behalf of the Indians in South Africa, who had been brought there - as they had and would continue to be in many places throughout the Empire, including behind the trenches in WWI - to work as menial labourers under terrible conditions and for meagre pay.

Gandhi held racist beliefs against the black population of South Africa, which was common at the time. He campaigned on the behalf of Indians to get better treatment than the native Africans, believing that they were innately superior as a people and had a much more important relationship with Britain as part of the Empire. He even raised a unit of Indian stretcher-bearers and medics to help the British in the Boer War. Over time Gandhi became rather leery about the whole idea of 'race', not least because it had been disproven as an anthropological concept, and the difficulties he faced in negotiating with the British soured his loyalty to and belief in the ideals of the Empire - which all too often fell short of money-grubbing realities - and kick-started his struggle to win independence for his native India.

Returning to India and allying himself with the newly formed Indian National Congress political party, he organised a series of strikes, civil disobedience campaigns, and boycotts aimed at the British. He remained committed to his philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (soul/truth force), going so far as to ask his followers not to raise a hand to defend themselves even when being attacked by the police. This was not as daft as it sounds, as Gandhi and Nehru more than any others - Nehru called himself 'the last Englishman to rule India' - knew the psychology and moral foundations of Britain's Empire. That is to say, many Britons liked to believe they were a force for good in the world. And even if they weren't all that good at the whole 'civilising mission' thing, they were still better than the French or the Dutch or the Belgians or - heavens forbid - the natives themselves.

In being seen being brutally repressed despite having done nothing wrong, Gandhi's non-violent protestors achieved moral victory ("This is what we're really doing over there?"), served as a Foil to violent revolutionary groups ("At least they're not shooting our boys, like that other lot!"), and demonstrated the potential strength of a violent movement ("Heavens forbid we should drive them to unite against us!"). Gandhi's single most famous campaign was the 1930 Salt March, where in protest against an increase in salt taxation he walked 390 kilometers to the coastal town of Dandi to make salt from the sea. Gandhi would travel to Britain several more times to negotiate with leading political figures, and was something of a media celebrity - even taking tea with King George V.

With the Imperial Japanese Army advancing into British Burma, Gandhi and Nehru used the Indian National Congress to proclaim the Quit India movement, which demanded full independence effective immediately. The two of them, and most of the INC, were promptly imprisoned and those riots and acts of sabotage which resulted - with the movement's more peaceful leaders behind bars, many fringe groups turned to violence - were brutally suppressed. Churchill did, however, recognise that India could not be held in the long-run, especially since Franklin D. Roosevelt told him in no uncertain terms that America would not back imperialism after the War, citing England's handling of India in particular. Ever mindful of the need to keep up appearances, Churchill favoured a peaceable and graceful exit and conceded that India would be given independence after the war was over. For good measure however the English public, that had turned anti-imperialist during the War, voted the Labour party into power and Prime Minister Clement Atlee promised to grant India's independence on coming to power.

During this final phase of Independence struggle, Gandhi was largely marginalized amidst the Congress deliberations and being personally a community organizer and protestor more than a politician, he didn't really have any say over the shape of India's government. His emphasis on village communities and agrarian societies ran counter to the vision of Nehru who wanted to industrialize and urbanize India. When the violence of Partition broke out, Gandhi famously marched into Calcutta and managed to pacify and cajole the crowd to halt the violence while he was there. Gandhi was absolutely opposed to Partition and the violence that broke out, but ultimately did compromise and decided to work towards building peace. At the time of his death, Gandhi was planning a future visit to Pakistan. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who held Gandhi responsible for the Partition and loss of territory and moreover declared pacifism as alien to Hinduism. Today Gandhi is famous worldwide as a symbol of non-violence, and revered in India.

Despite the above, Gandhi's reputation isn't entirely squeaky-clean. In addition to the racism against Africans mentioned above, Gandhi also became a bit of a pervert in his old age, with a peculiar, almost fetishistic zeal for administering enemas to young girls, both touched upon in Penn & Teller: Bullshit! He also became more determined to pursue what he called his "experiment in celibacy". He was generally attended by very young women, who were sometimes referred to as his "walking-sticks" because he liked to lean on them for physical support when out in public. At various times he would get them to sleep with him (and by "sleep with him" we mean "sleep in the same bed as him", not a euphemism for "have sex with him") so that he could test his own commitment to celibacy and make sure that he wouldn't give into temptation. Weirder yet, the young women concerned would sometimes do this naked. One, who recorded the experience in her diaries, was his grandniece Manuben; if Manuben's diaries are to be relied upon (and we have no other source to go on for her own experience of it), she seems to have regarded her great-uncle's celibacy as entirely intact.note 

More damningly than that, his famous non-violent protest was actually his second choice; as touched upon on the Actual Pacifist page, he had initially sought a violent revolution, but the inability to acquire arms and a realization about the British mentality made him decide to try the non-violent approach instead. As touched upon on the Suicidal Pacifism page, although he was eventually forced to admit that, upon reflection, his non-violent protestation methods wouldn't work, he is on record as having initially argued that the Allies should have surrendered rather than be drawn into the second World War against Nazi Germany — and, likewise, that the Jews under the Nazi regime should either non-violently protest their fate, surrender meekly to extermination, or even commit suicide rather than fight.

Point of clarification: Mahatma Gandhi is not related to Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, or any of the other Gandhis (of the so called "Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty") that you hear about in Modern Indian politics. Indira is the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, she took the last name from her husband Feroze Gandhy (later anglicized to Gandhi), who is not related to Mahatma. "Gandhi" is in fact a common name in Gujarat, among many communities, and actually means (in differing contexts): "grocer"/"pharmacist"/"perfume seller", symbolizing his origins in the Merchant community and typifying his Humble Hero appeal across India.

Gandhi in fiction

  • Clone High: An animated show that depicted a high school full of the clones of famous individuals, with the Clone Gandhi rebelling against his predecessor by being hyperactive and irreverent. It caused an uproar in India, to the point where members of the Indian parliament were criticizing it.
  • Gandhi: The sprawling 1982 biopic that earned Sir Ben Kingsley an Oscar.
  • UHF parodies the Actionized Sequel trope by showing a trailer for Gandhi 2. The humorously clueless depiction of Gandhi turns him into a jet-setting vigilante who beats up hoodlums, drives a Ferrari, orders steak at restaurants, and, you know, isn't dead.
  • "The Last Article" is a short story by Harry Turtledove depicting the interactions between Gandhi and the new German governor of India in an Alternate History in which the Nazis won World War II.
  • In every installment of the Civilization series Gandhi serves as India's leader - indeed, it was only in Civ IV that Asoka was added as a less contemporary option. In the first game, a programming oversight caused Gandhi to become the most warlike leader in the late game, and his out-of-character obsession with nuclear weapons became a fandom in-joke and a series tradition.
  • The short subject Gandhi At The Bat is a mockumentary about Gandhi secretly visiting Yankee Stadium in 1933 and pinch hitting for the New York Yankees.
  • Was in Celebrity Deathmatch against Genghis Khan. Due to a malfunction in the time machine, the two switched personalities, causing Gandhi to beat Genghis Khan into a pulp before rampaging through the building.
  • Gandhi features in Epic Rap Battles of History, facing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha is based on the life of Gandhi (with lyrics taken from the Bhagavad Gita).
  • Gandhi appears as a stand-up comic in a Family Guy cutaway. He isn't successful.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Mountain of Madness", as Homer Simpson and Mr. Burns fall victim to Cabin Fever and are about to fight, Homer asks Burns "You and What Army?", prompting him to imagine a snowman army behind Burns. Homer counters with "I have powers... uh, political powers!", imagining political figures including Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt behind him.
  • Stanley Wolpert's novel Nine Hours to Rama depicts the last day of Gandhi's life, focusing mostly on his assassin Godse. It was made into a 1963 film starring Horst Buchholz, Jose Ferrer and J.S. Casshyap as Gandhi.

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